In 1998, Samuel R. Delaney, acclaimed Black Science Fiction writer, was asked at an awards convention about racism within the genre. Here he is referring to the writing community but I’ve observed that this can be equally applied to every industry, including movies and television:
As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field.
We are still a long way away from such statistics.
But we are certainly moving closer.
We need to be clear that what we’ve been experiencing very strongly for the last six or seven years is a white social media backlash against women and PoC representation in popular media. As marginalized people are seen more often in media projects what we’ve also been seeing is a white, straight, backlash against their slightly more positive/nuanced depictions.
What Delaney means is that more racism will be expressed by those white people who feel most threatened by Black progress in that industry, and I can say this because this has been noted in every industry in which it has occurred.
This is not new! It hasn’t been new in over a hundred years.
What we’re seeing today in the pushback against Black actors in visual media has happened multiple times and in every industry, from music, to literature, to politics, to movies, and television. Every time PoC have made inroads into any field of endeavor there has been a white backlash against it. The only thing that changes are the industries in question, and their arguments against that progress. Now we see it happening in visual entertainment.
In the 1920s, Jazz was seen as barbaric and immoral. It was considered the kind of music that lead white women astray and put them in environments where Black musicians had access to them. All manner of immorality was attributed to Jazz including drug use, violence, and hypersexuality. The exact same criticisms were made against Rock in the 50s, Disco in the 70s, and Rap music in the 90s, when those gained ascendances in popular culture. Rock music was a genre that championed drugs and sex, Disco encouraged homosexuality, and Rap music was considered too violent for white sensibilities.
The same backlash that we’ve been seeing for the last six or seven years against Black actors in the Fantasy genre is the same backlash we experienced when N. K. Jemison won back-to-back Hugo awards in 2016, 2017, and 2018 for her Fantasy trilogy The Obsidian Gate. As Delaney predicted, a select group of white male critics complained that women and PoC were getting too many awards, and so formed a contingent of fans and authors called “The Rabid Puppies” in an attempt to game the Hugo awards rules to win awards for themselves. In other words, they preferred to cheat, rather than accept that Science Fiction fans were a diverse group of men and women who had moved on from the type of Science Fiction they wrote, which centered on white European men as the heroes. Much of the hoopla in the industry has since calmed down, but that does not mean that parity has been reached for authors of color, and we have seen the exact same dynamic play out in other arenas where women and PoC have made any kind of inroads, including politics, where white men have decided that rather than share political power, they would prefer to game the system to keep it all of it for themselves.
In 2014, Candace Patton was cast as the Black love interest of Barry Allen in The Flash television series on the CW network. That same year, Disney released The Force Awakens, the first film in its latest Star Wars trilogy, and the lead character was a Black actor named John Boyega. They both experienced immediate backlash for daring to perform the fictional roles that they had been hired for. Candace Patton has received unending racist vitriol on social media for the last 10 years for playing the Black love interest of the lead white character solely because her character was a white woman in the comic books. And don’t make the mistake of thinking the only toxic fans are white men. White women established themselves firmly in the contingent for bigotry by weaponizing fandom against Candace and harassing and bullying John Boyega on social media.
In 2016, a new version of The Ghostbusters was released with an all-female cast and received immediate pushback from gatekeeping white male fans who believed they owned that franchise and argued that women couldn’t be fictional Ghostbusters. The movie starred three white actresses, but it is very telling that the onus of their hatred landed squarely on the only Black cast member in the group, Leslie Jones, who was driven from social media by the racist backlash against her original characters’ very existence. So we can see that even arguments that PoC and women make their own original characters rather than supplant characters who used to be white are simply a smokescreen for racist abuse. Original characters do exist and receive the same level of acting out and foolery that race and gender-swapped characters do, as we saw with the release of Black Panther.
In 2018, there was a massive backlash against the release of Disney’s tentpole superhero movie, The Black Panther, in which the same gatekeeping white male fans attempted to downvote the movie’s ratings on Rotten Tomatoes, causing Disney and RT to temporarily shut down the audience portion of the site to prevent the abuse. Thinkpieces were written denigrating the making of the film, and some fans engaged in violence callouts, falsely reporting that they had been harassed and/or beaten by racist Black Panther fans in order to sully the reputation of the film. Black fans had to be vigilant in protecting the actors from harassment on social media and debunking the claims of violence.
Every time Disney releases a film that isn’t centered on the heroic activities of straight white men there is a backlash from white men against those films, against the actors, and even against the fans who talk about them. Women and fans of color aren’t even safe in their own fan spaces as those will, at some point, be invaded by trolls and bigots spewing racist vitriol at them for daring to like a movie they were the audience for. We saw this with Captain Marvel in 2019, and Shang Chi and The Eternals in 2021, with each successive film being criticized as the worst film ever made in a franchise, how the MCU is failing, and the blogs, videos, and websites of fans of color being reported as abuse, and blocked on TikTok and Youtube for daring to discuss entertainment that is aimed at them as the audience.
This also happens with television shows. Since it is Disney that is leading the charge of diversity and inclusion in its many franchises, it is Disney’s fans and employees (the actors) who have borne the brunt of the backlash, during and after series like Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Ms. Marvel, and the newest series, She-Hulk. Why? Because the stars of these series are women and PoC. It is notable that there was no backlash against series with white male leads like Loki, Hawkeye, and Moon Knight which were also released in the last year.
These shows are not alone in having a racist fan problem. Since John Boyega’s debut as one of the first Black Stormtroopers in Star Wars, there has been a racist and misogynist backlash against every single advance of a PoC, or woman, in that franchise, especially in any film in which a white male wasn’t the star, but even a few that were, as with the last TV release, Obi Wan Kenobi, which prominently starred a woman of color. The lead villain of the series, Reva Sevander, is played by Yale graduate Moses Ingram. She had to endure toxic fans who called her everything but a child of god, questioned her undeniable qualifications for playing her role, and was flatly told by some of them that she could not be a part of Star Wars.
In the past year, we have seen a racist backlash against casting PoC in any SciFi and Fantasy film or television series. The casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians TV series, the casting of Black Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves in Amazon’s Rings of Power series, the casting of Halle Bailey in Disney’s live-action version of The Little Mermaid, and the casting of Black legacy characters in the Game of Thrones spinoff series, House of the Dragon, has racist/toxic fans pulling out all the stops to troll, harass, and make sure that Black fans, actors, and creators are aware that they don’t belong in genre films and series.
You also have those bad faith actors who try to hide their bigotries behind legitimate concerns, like questioning the credentials of the actors who were chosen, not understanding that when the only time you care about whether or not a character is qualified to perform the role they’ve been hired for is when they are a woman, or gay, or a person of color, that that too is performing a racism.
The Whiteness of the Past, the Present, and the Future
White people for the last hundred years of film and TV have crafted entire fictional universes with pasts, presents, and futures that were entirely centered around themselves, with not a single face of color to be seen. When I was a little girl, I was sitting in our kitchen watching some futuristic movie and turned to ask my mother why there were no Black people in the future. Really quick she said, “Maybe we left.” She’d noticed it too and seemed to have that answer ready for me, just in case.
White people who are making the arguments that we don’t belong are speaking from a long history of whitewashing, of never having seen Black and Brown faces in historical epics, present-day dramas, or futuristic landscapes unless we were playing happy slaves, silent victims, or menacing drug dealers. The industry was so whitewashed that when it eventually developed the use of color, Black and Brown people weren’t even a consideration, and color was only attuned to white skin tones. Movies and TV were so white that Black women didn’t have hair and makeup people of their own until a scant few years ago.
According to white people making the loudest noise, we don’t belong anywhere in their all-white fantasylands of the past or the future. Their entire understanding of historical events comes not from study, or reading, or actual knowledge, but from Hollywood movies in which our presence had been, downplayed, erased, or ignored, even in our own stories. Based on these deeply ignorant people’s understanding of history, the only stories in which Black people should be allowed to appear are the ones based on slavery, as if enslavement was our only contribution to the world. We’re not allowed to appear in movies set in the present unless we’re being killed or killing, and apparently, we don’t exist at all in the future, not just physically, but in any cultural or social contributions we made to the making of this country thast sre simply never referenced.
Candace Patton talked about how she didn’t have anyone to do her hair, and Black actresses called out Hollywood in 2020, for its lack of hairstylers for them. Many of them confessed to having to do their own makeup because white makeup professionals never bothered to learn how to do Black skin or hair. White hairstylists didn’t need to know that to have successful careers! There was such a complete lack of Black female stuntwomen that white stuntwomen wore blackface on the rare occasions that Black actresses needed stuntwork done! This was pretty rare indeed because up until about ten years ago we never got to be in Action movies often enough to need stunt doubles!
All of the white backlash against Black women (in particular) participation in genre media we are seeing today is just one part of the side effects of Hollywood’s insistence that there is only one demographic that needs to be pandered to, (therefore all the other demographics can be ignored), and the idea that movies with diverse and inclusive casts don’t make any money, (which results in the erasure of PoC in order for anything to be greenlit). Many films cannot receive funding to get made without a big enough named actor in the cast. Unfortunately, Hollywood not casting PoC in certain films and for certain roles results in actors of color (in particular Asian American actors) finding it nearly impossible to become big enough named actors to ever get projects funded. They can’t get to A-list status if they are never given the opportunity to do so.
Not being considered for roles in certain genres of film limits an actor’s career prospects, and when those roles are obtained (as with Candace Patton’s casting as Iris West in The Flash, Moses Ingram’s casting in the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, and Leslie Jones casting in Ghostbusters) they receive no protection from their employers from the harassment and pervasive racist vitriol on social media, which is one of the nastier side effects of Hollywood never having hired actors who look like them for these roles in the past. Part of their employment means they are subject to public emotional abuse while working in a role they were paid money to perform. These actors often receive little to no support from their white industry colleagues or white female fans either (something which has only begun to change just this year!) It has continually fallen on the fans, especially Black women, to be their support systems under trying and stressful circumstances.
Until this moment passes, and seeing PoC in these types of roles becomes normalized, and white fans fully begin to understand that this is not a situation that is going to change (because diversity and inclusion is proving to be a very lucrative deal for the corporations engaging in it), we will continue to see this kind of toxic behavior, and we all need to be ready for that. Much of this behavior can be laid at the feet, not just of the kinds of fans who are used to being the only demographic that was pandered to for over a hundred years, but Hollywood’s idea that PoC, neither the actors nor the audiences, were worthy of consideration.
It is long past time Hollywood realized we too are worthy of being pandered to and that representation always mattered, not just to us but to white people who are unused to seeing PoC as anything other than the stereotypes which Hollywood has always given them.
As I stated when I first started this blog:
Black women like to have adventures too.
It is a shame I’ve had to wait nearly my entire life for Hollywood to realize women like me exist.